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Can pub quizzes survive in the smartphone era?

  • 1 June 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Man using smartphone in pub

As pub closures increase, landlords are turning to traditional tools to attract trade, with giant chain Punch launching a national pub quiz to lure customers back. But since many quizzers have smartphones in their pockets, naming Mali's capital is less of a challenge than it once was. Question-setter Alan Connor looks at how to Google-proof a quiz.

Text-messaging Is Destroying the Pub Quiz As We Know It, noted the Super Furry Animals in 2001. Little did they know that the pub quiz of 2011 would start with the host insisting: "OK, iPhones away, please. Yes, very clever - and Androids. All phones away."

Cheating has always been possible in pub quizzes. But while once the dishonest quizzer had to pop out to phone a friend, or wait for a text message reply, phones with fast internet access have taken cheating possibilities to a new level.

So on the one hand, 24/7 access to information threatens to deal a deadly blow to the tradition of competitively recalling facts over a few pints. On the other, smartphones offer an opportunity to question-setters to come up with more inventive ways of testing drinkers' knowledge.

Some rounds are safe. The traditional A4 sheet with photos of well-known people can't be farmed out to the internet. But it's not feasible to base every round on colour printouts.

Others need to adapt. Playing extracts from pop songs risks competitors searching for the lyrics. Lyric rounds themselves are obviously out, along with naming titles or chart places.

Better to use instrumentals, perhaps - although services like Shazam allow the devious to have a remote server identify a track if their phone can "hear" 10 seconds of it. A truly secure music round might consist of "mash-ups" - two songs played or mixed together, or even of sheet music.

The challenge for quizmasters is to ask for things that computers don't - or can't - know. Machines can be better than any human at chess, for example, but are not so hot at cryptic crosswords.

So a smartphone-proof quiz might feature questions which can only be solved by making associations. For example, what connects a single by the Pogues, an Italian island resort and a unit of electrical current? (Answer in the box at the bottom.)

"The more you complicate a question, the more Google-proof it becomes," says Thomas Eaton, who sets questions for The Weakest Link. "You can set something up and then ask people to make elliptical connections - the kind of thing you get in Round Britain Quiz on Radio 4." Another example is the "What links…?" section of Eaton's weekly quiz in the Guardian.

One area where we humans still beat computers is grasping what information means. My quiz on Twitter, Just The Gist, summarises the stories of pop songs without any giveaway details. For example: "In an area of low pressure and high humidity, a series of bodies falls from the sky at approximately 22:30."

Similarly, it's possible to convey the sense of a quotation without any information a search engine recognises. Here is a line from a British film, translated online through a few languages and back to English: "No Christ. This is an imp."

Technology can be used against itself. Quizmasters can show a results page and have quizzers guess the search term.

The problem is that smartphones are constantly advancing. Until recently, I included some puzzles from newspapers in the sheets handed out to contestants during the break. "Sudoku used to be the safe haven of a clever quizmaster, but we've cracked that as well," says Stephen Rosenthal of Google, displaying an app where the user photographs a sudoku and a remote machine sends back a completed grid.

The same app, Google Goggles, can be used to identify the covers of CDs and books - but the quizmaster can stay one step ahead by blurring those images, leaving them recognisable to the human eye. Algorithms can't squint.

Pity the quizmaster, then, forced to ponder which kinds of information are understood better by humans than by computers - the same "Turing tests" that occupy the fine minds of those who work in artificial intelligence.

The final gambit available to the host is to stop cheating being worthwhile.

Some quizmasters include a round where the questions come in so fast, no-one's thumbs can keep up. It's possible to get 25 questions into two minutes this way; there's also the kind of round where the first team with a hand up and the right answer gets the points.

Other types of expertise can be tested - asking the contestants to draw a circle with an area of 20cm squared, say. And as far as we know, the senses of smell, taste and touch cannot be relayed over the internet, raising possibilities like "Identify the Brand of Crisp".

Why are quizmasters forced to go to these lengths to ensure fairness?

Victoria Coren of BBC Four's Only Connect is puzzled.

"Why would somebody go to a pub quiz, or launch a game of Scrabble, and then look up the answers on the sly? What meaning are they ascribing to the victory? There must be a massive national self-esteem problem."